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  • Jay-Z Albums From Worst To Best
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15. Kingdom Come (2006): This one just makes me sad. Jay had retired, with such grand self-mythologizing flair, with the masterful Black Album and the almost-as-great all-star concert film Fade To Black. He stayed retired for all of three years, less time than superstar musicians often take between albums -- never mind the fact that he toured heavily, dropped a bunch of guest verses, and released a pair of collaborative albums during his fake retirement. Still, the final spotlight bow of The Black Album was so graceful that Jay's eventual inevitable return seemed like it should be great, like he'd only return if he had things that he deeply wanted to say. This was not, alas, the case. Instead, he came back with a weak and sleepy victory-lap of an album, full of aren't-I-great musings about the rise from poverty that he'd already recorded a ton of songs about. Musically, the album was all airy, moneyed, low-impact soul-rap, and Jay never saw fit to bring back even the slightest touch of his old viciousness. On "Beach Chair," he managed to make Coldplay's Chris Martin sound even less animated than usual. On "Dig A Hole," he deeply wounded old buddy Beanie Sigel's feelings in ways that wouldn't become apparent until years later. And on "Show Me What You Got," he fell asleep on top of a beauty of a celebratory Just Blaze track, something that became even more apparent when a peak-era Lil Wayne freestyled over the track and absolutely ate Jay's lunch. One saving grace: The righteous "Minority Report," on which he summoned real bile against George W. Bush's mangling of the Hurricane Katrina situation.

Back in 1990, an extremely young Jay-Z showed up wiggita-wiggitaing all over “The Originator,” a single by his fast-rapping buddy the Jaz. And between that moment and 1996, when he released his stately and ridiculously assured debut album Reasonable Doubt, Jay more or less disappeared. He spent a little while on the road with Big Daddy Kane, putting in hypeman duty, and even showed up on a 1994 Kane posse cut. And he appeared on tracks with guys like Big L and Mic Geronimo. But he was busy with other things, too. As legend has it, Jay spent most of his time, in those years, amassing an honest-to-god fortune dealing drugs. And when the fully formed Jay showed up on Reasonable Doubt, he showed the sort of unearthly confidence that debuting rappers so rarely display. This Jay was not even remotely hungry or uncertain in his rap style, and his whole bespoke-kingpin character may not have been too different from his actual self. In the midst of a ridiculously fertile moment in New York rap, he still stood out. And even in his least inspired moments, he hasn’t stopped standing out.

Jay’s great topic, in recent years, is his own meteoric rise from the corner to the Barclays Center owners’ suite. But he was mythologizing his own story even as that story was beginning. And he’s always seemed like one of our greatest rappers mostly because he was so convinced of his own greatness. For a while there, he was steadily cranking out a watershed album every year, and evaluating his entire catalog is something of a messy task. Even with that prodigious output, many of his most important moments have been on other people’s songs, or on albums other than his own. He’s given great tracks like “Who You Wit,” “Hey Papi,” and “Excuse Me Miss Again (La La La)” to the soundtracks of deeply shitty movies. “Jigga My Nigga,” one of his most iconic singles, belongs to the Ruff Ryders Vol. 1 compilation — a crew album from a crew that he wasn’t even part of. And his donation of “Is That Yo Bitch?” to Memphis Bleek ranks as one of the great acts of charity in recent memory.

Writing this thing, I’ve had to puzzle out what constitutes a Jay-Z album. I’ve included all four of his collaborative long-players, even the inexplicable live-mashup thing he did with Linkin Park. And I’ve also counted 2000′s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, billed as a Jay-Z album even though it was more of a Roc-A-Fella crew effort. But I left off all the various compilations of his work. I left off the live Unplugged album, where the Roots so masterfully backed Jay up. And I even discounted the soundtrack to his near-unwatchable hood movie Streets Is Watching, since he only showed up on about half the tracks.

Listening back to all his albums, it’s striking how much musical ground he’s covered; from slick New York boom-bap to Timbaland future-funk meditations to Swizz Beatz Casio stomps. And it’s been fun to watch him evolve from bloodthirsty crime lord to wry and introspective elder statesman, even if he was making better records when he was a bloodthirsty crime lord. Even at his worst (Kingdom Come, obviously), he’s still a fascinating and magnetic figure. And you could easily make a case for any of those top five albums as Jay’s best.

This weekend, Jay completes yet another career milestone as he finishes his eight-show run at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, a building that’s got his fingerprints all over it even if he only owns a tiny piece of it. That makes it as good a time as any to dig through the man’s deep discography.

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Comments (97)
  1. Vol. 3 as #1? This is a joke, right?

  2. “I’m sure I’ll start some fights by ranking The Blueprint, Jay’s first and greatest across-the-board mainstream critical success, this low.”

    then make it right

  3. I see they’ve switched things up this time by making the best album 4th instead of 3rd.

    • I hear some version of this in the comments pretty regularly, and I never address it because one reply from me isn’t going to do much to change popular opinion, but I probably should try anyway, so here goes: As the person who edits these things, let me say for the record that there’s absolutely no internal policy guiding the writer’s choices in any of these lists. I’ve never said, “Hey, we all know Slanted is the best Pavement album, but slot it in at number 3 to generate some commentary.” No one here has. Nothing of the sort. The writers who do these lists know these catalogs backwards and forwards; all I ask of them is that they provide readers with as much historical and cultural context as possible, so these things aren’t empty clickbait but stand up as informative and illuminating works of analysis that provide value to the expert and novice alike. I’m honestly being totally transparent here. I’d be much more likely to ask a writer to re-work his or her list if it seemed deliberately contrarian than I would if it seemed painfully obvious. There’s no conspiracy at work, just differing opinions, you have my word.

      • I don’t think anyone really thinks you do it on purpose, it’s just funny because it seems to happen a lot.
        If we are on the subject, I personally feel that this format overshadows the actual content that might be in these things. If you are being completely honest about the innocence of these lists maybe you should reconsider them because they do get a lot of attention but I think it’s mainly negative.

        • Whining about lists was around before Albums from Worst to Best and it will be around long after Albums from Worst to Best.

          • If you’re having list problems I feel bad for you son.

          • Don’t get me wrong, whining can be fun every now and then. Maybe 2-3 times a week is a bit too much. Do you think these lists succeed at being “informative and illuminating works of analysis that provide value to the expert and novice alike”? I think most readers check the ranking and stop reading after getting annoyed. I can honestly say I’ve done it more than once.

      • Instead of burying this in the comments section, someone should maybe think of starting every column with some form of this disclaimer. I just think titling something “*Blank* Albums From Worst to Best” implies an authoritative list. I love the concept, it’s just hard to get with the execution.

      • I’m sure it’s not deliberate, I just thought it was quite funny since for every other one of these features for a band/artist I like my favourite album (and the one popular opinion seems to support) has been 3rd. I do recognise that everyone has there own preferences and I really enjoy this feature and it has made me see a couple of albums in a slightly different light. Basically just ignore me for I am nothing more than a garden variety commenter who secretly makes my own versions of these features up in my head all the time.

    • Nope, still at number 3. The Blueprint is a classic and all, but my vote goes to The Black Album.

      • The Black Album is the Harvest of rap. People always seem to rank it on top even though it’s like a 7 or 8 out of 10 and is being dragged down by a pair of seriously lousy tracks.

    • I have no real input re: the album rankings, but after watching this gif for about 3 solid minutes, I am confident in saying that that must be one of the most perfectly acted moments of all time.

  4. 1. The Blueprint
    2. Reasonable Doubt
    3. Hard Knock Life
    4. Life and Times
    5. The Black Album

  5. I actually feel exactly the same about the first Blueprint. It’s kind of wonky as a whole, despite containing some of his best, most important work. It has cheesy moments and the production is actually starting to sound a little dated.

    I’ve never admitted that before and it will probably be awhile before I admit it again.

  6. I understand you guys have been trying to be as against the grain as possible with these rankings, but come on.

  7. Leaning a little hard on the lunch-eating metaphor, are we?

  8. I’m probably in the minority, but I LOVE Vol. 3 at #1. I’ve always thought that album was so underrated.

    • Like seriously you guys, I don’t think I’ve every been so tickled by a list. When I saw the link to this post I immediately started writing a comment in my head about how Vol. 3 should be ranked higher. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything but Reasonable Doubt or The Blueprint referred to as the best Jay-Z album.

      Also, like the American Gangster is on the bottom third of the list. Didn’t The Fork give that a great review? I never thought that album was all that good.(thought the movie was kinda whack too)

      • I wrote that review! But yeah, it hasn’t held up great, especially in light of Watch the Throne.

        • You sure did! 8.6! I can’t even say it was a mistake, I haven’t listened to it in years, just remember not liking it.

          Anyways, this list makes up for it. On the behalf of everyone who has unironically used the phrase “I’m so gangsta prissy chicks don’t wanna fuck wit me” in their day to day, I would like to thank you.

          • I really enjoy American Gangster. The highs are startlingly high and the whole album finishes on an incredible note (with or without the bonus trracks). But the album really takes time to get going. Outside of “Roc Boys” the album’s first half is a bit of a drag.

    • Yo, but you’re actually wrong, though. The entire middle of the album is filled with shitty filler that if any other artist put out, you would be saying good producers wasted beats and you wish that Jay-Z could get on them. Pop 4 Roc wouldn’t even have been good enough to get on a Memph Bleek album. The album is bookended by some really good tracks, but what goes on between them is a fucking mess.

  9. Vol. 3 at number one, yikes. It looked like it was on the right track. I saw AG ranked at a rather low position and thought that the worst that could happen from here was ranking The Blueprint ahead of Reasonable Doubt. Thanks for relieving me of that worry.

    I rank his top 5 as:

    Reasonable Doubt
    The Blueprint
    American Gangster
    The Black Album
    Vol. 2

    Vol.1 would probably be at six for me, and I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who would find it to be interchangeable with AG, TBA, and Vol.2.

  10. No WAY is The Black Album better than The Blueprint. It might be a cliché opinion by now, but Blueprint’s my favorite Jay-Z album, and while I can understand people ranking Reasonable Doubt ahead of it, it’s impossible to deny that it runs circles around Black. Harumph!

  11. Vol 3 at #1, Wow. Things That You Do and S. Carter are both steaming doodoo butter. Not sure how Hov’s best album can also hold two of the worst songs he’s ever been involved in making.

    • I’ll give you S. Carter, but you need to get over your dislike of Mariah Carey and listen to Things That You Do again.

  12. So all of these lists are just revisionist, right, in an attempt to provoke discussion in the comments?

    I mean the order of all these classic albums has already been long established — whether it’s Jay-Z or the Replacements. Why not just put Amnesiac as the best Radiohead album or In Utero as the best Nirvana album and see what people say? Not a bad schtick, but a bit manipulative and disingenuous, imo.

      • Michael, thanks for responding — and maybe my own response here is a bit too intemperate and not measured enough. Two thoughts — the first is that maybe writers describing their own personal experience with albums is perhaps misleading when considering the more objective, canonical implications of the title of this series. Is losing your virginity (or having some other intense personal experience) while such-and-such album plays really grounds for declaring it superior? As you admit, this series is about ranking solely by an individual writer’s personal preference, not wide-spread critical consensus or larger musical/cultural significance.

        That would be fine, if these pieces picked their discrepancies wisely. But they just haven’t so far. There’s a legitimate tension as to whether Reasonable Doubt or The Blueprint is better; whether Slanted and Enchanted or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is better; whether Tim or Let It Be is better – and so on. But these pieces seem to so scramble the rankings of albums so much by personal preference as to render that larger debate somewhat irrelevant. I mean, what’s the point of 50 comments all saying that Volume 3 isn’t the best Jay-Z album?

    • Actually, In Utero IS the best Nirvana album.

  13. I’ve actually really enjoyed reading all these lists over the past several months. I particularly like how they’re presented as a single listener’s take on the artist’s output, rather than a voted-on staffroom consensus. Those are fine and all, but I love how these lists allow a writer to say “this is their best record and this is why I think so”. I haven’t agreed with all of them, but I never get the feeling these lists are trying to be disingenuous. It’s just that writer’s take on it.

    For example, Tom defends Vol. 3′s merits as a record, but he also adds in the sentimental detail that it coincided with his own first move to NYC. While I obviously don’t share that experience, I can’t discount it; instead I can allow it to present a different opinion than my own, as well as an opportunity to re-assess a record that I’d frankly written off a long time ago.

    And to be honest, isn’t that why we read these things anyway? Or is it just to reinforce our previously-subscribed-to opinions of recent musical history? To pat ourselves on the back and say “I already believed that _____ was _____’s best record and now I see that others believe it too, and therefore no more exploration is necessary”? That doesn’t sound fun to me.

    • I definitely see what your saying, Decibel did an interesting spin on this a few years ago. I forget what the segment was called, but it earned Kevin Stewart-Planko the moniker, “The Bravest Man In Metal” where he defended why he likes generally shit upon albums (i.e. St. Anger, Carcass’ Swan Song) and he had another segment where he basically shit on classic metal albums (i.e. At The Gates’ Slaughter of the Souls). I feel like that is far more effective than pimping a list as a definitive list.

  14. I’m not mad at Vol. 3 being #1. I prefer Reasonable Doubt, but Vol. 3 is my second favorite.

    The Blueprint is really overrated. It has its moments and you can’t deny it’s influence, but the lows are pretty low. When an album has a horrible song like Jigga That Nigga or The Ruler’s Back (a boring rehash of a Slick Rick classic), it hard for me to think of it as highly as most do.

  15. when I read things like this “And I even discounted the soundtrack to his near-unwatchable hood movie Streets Is Watching” I really have to question the source. To call streets is watching, a hood classic unwatchable is just utter bs. opinion or not.

    • ‘Streets is Watching’ is one of the most horrible str8 to video hip-hop garbage presented as some sort of film ever generated and the soundtrack was equally as vile.

  16. You’re killin’ me Tom. Seriously.

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  18. whoever wrote this list is an idiot if you put vol.3 as number #1 over the blue print or reasonable doubt. i REBUKE THIS LIST!

  19. These used to be fun, now I feel like they’re just trolling for responses. My guess is that next time they’ll do Radiohead Albums from Worst to Best with Amnesiac at #1.

    • Oops, sorry – that was one of those “immediate reaction” posts. I went back and read the other comments only to realize that someone has already said pretty much the exact same thing. That’s the kind of thing that happens when someone randomly announces that Vol. 3 is the best Jay-Z album.

  20. S…seriously? Stereogum, listen. Last week I made the comment that you always put an artist’s best album at #3 and pick some weird, not best album as #1..

    While I appreciate the help with proving me right, I don’t actually want you to keep proving me right

  21. What’s crazy, for me, is how consistently great the top ten or so albums on this list are (your list, or my list, or probably anybodies list). I remember when dude first hit, and I would never, EVER have predicted he would be where he is now. Still at the top of the game, able to do basically whatever he wants with a massive catalog of albums in his pocket.

    As far as the list goes, Kingdom Come (not great, but NOT as bad as people make it out to be) and Blueprint III both belong in front of the Linkin Park album and BOTH R Kelly joints. I’d have to put The Dynasty below all of Jay’s solo albums, too, simply for the fact that it’s not really a “Jay-Z” album.

    Everything else, though, honestly, doesn’t really make any difference what order they’re in. They’re all good-to-great-to-classic albums, so in the end it’s always going to come down to personal preference. Me, I like the older grittier stuff just a bit more than the later, more polished jams. But I’d be hard pressed to not put the Black Album in my top three or four favorites.

  22. blueprint at number 4? you’re a brave man Tom.

  23. I don’t know that I agree with Vol 3 being number one but ‘Dopeman’ is one of the most criminally underrated songs of his entire catalogue (I’d put ‘Meet the Parents’ up there too, but that one comes from a generally shitty album so maybe it just stands out more in context).

  24. I guess you can’t count Unplugged because it’s a live album, but still, that album is so good.

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  26. I haven’t check the list yet, but let me say here that Reasonable Doubt is ridiculously overrated. In 1996 it may have felt special, but right now it’s a cliched take on the Scarface-rise to-fame-gangster genre that has dominated way too much hip-hop. Give me Blueprint, Black/Grey Album/American Gangster any day.

    • so wait..your point is that reasonable doubt sounds cliche because every rapper since then has copied it? let’s just stop and think about that for a moment…

      • I can’t help how it aged. Yeah it’s technically excellent and has some really good cuts, but sometimes time does things that aren’t fair. Plus I just don’t really find the subject matter that interesting. I thought Scarface sucked until the big coke shootout, too.

        • You guys, Sgt. Pepper’s is so overrated. I mean, 4-track recording is SO CLICHE at this point! I can’t help it that time was unfair to that record, but that’s the way life goes.

    • I bet Reasonable Doubt wasn’t the first Jay album you listened to? Only someone who started listening to Jay’s later shit would say that. May not be his best, but still relevant as f@ck!

  27. Didn’t read ANY comments, but D.O.A was admirably right, Blueprint 3 was better that you make it out to be and Reasonable Doubt is overrated and dated.

  28. Top down, screaming out “money is actually a thing!”

  29. Reasonable Doubt is #1 my a landslide. Come on now.

  30. I know I am probably too late to get any conversation, but I never really felt like Blueprint 3 was that bad and I know I have been in the minority since it came out. It just never stuck out to me as bad just seemed like a perfectly listenable album. It definitely wasn’t a hard album and actually I think like “Run this Town” less than the average fan, but I thought most of the tracks were pretty good even though it was an overall poppy album is just not were a Jay Z fan wants to see Jay Z, but I really never held the distaste for it that most did. I would at least put it ahead of the R kelly albums. Ironically, Volume 3 is the Jay album I have owned the longest and I never considered it a landmark album. I liked it, but it never crossed my mind that it’d be considered top 3.

  31. There are a number of good album cuts, yeah. “Off That”, “Young Forever”, “What We Talkin About” – all quality.

  32. Great breakdown. It’s great to read Jay’s catalog through someone else’s eyes. I think it speaks to his universality as an artist that no two people could agree on a list like this because everyone has experienced his music through their own lens of life. I really enjoyed this. By the way, I’d put The Black Album at #1 based on my own journey with Jay’s catalog. It’s the ROC!

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    • translation: I have diarrhea; I need someone to blame.

      • Colored people annoy the shit out of me.

        (oh wait, I can’t say that, but he can say “white people annoy the shit out of me” no problem because white people are the devil and the only ones who can be racist)

        • happy halladays’ comment was terribly dumb, but pulling the reverse racism card is weak sauce (also, it turns out, I’m trying to bring “weak sauce” back for some reason).

          • Actually, it’s no different at all. The words are exactly the same. And saying it either way is racist.

          • An infinite number of down votes won’t change the fact that it’s the truth. Equality means equal treatment FOR ALL. Not just those who’ve been wronged in the past. Two wrongs will never make a right.

  34. I’d go with …

    1.Reasonabledoubt
    2.Blueprint
    3.Hard Knock Life
    4.Black Album
    5.Life & Times

  35. Let a writer have a fucking opinion already, its music, not science.

  36. off topic but… Jay-Z owns one fifteenth of one percent of the Nets.

    Can we do a list of Teams/Musicians collaborations that we’d like to see?

  37. NONE OF THESE TOUCH GOBLIN

  38. NOT EVEN CLOSE!!!

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  40. Alex Vermitsky  |   Posted on Oct 8th, 2012 -1

    So the Jay Z and The Roots record is not worth mentioning but the Linkin Park collab deserves a spot on this list?

    • That’s a good point – the writer didn’t even mention it. That legendary union after Jay signed Roots to Def Jam; should have least made top 10 and I would have left the collab off with Linkin Park since it was more a Linkin Park project then Jay-Z. Would have made it a top 16 list if included…

  41. Please stop doing these lists.

  42. WHHHERRRE GOLF WANG AT?

  43. Overall, a solid list – even with all the comments rearranging the top 5 mainly, and then some about the bottom 5 – arguably most everyone agrees with it give or take. The writer did his research and took different opinions into account before posting and yes, admit it, we as a society love lists don’t we? Why we jumped at the chance seeing the list headlined seeing if our own personal mental list matched up with a ‘qualified resource’ such as a music writer for a magazine.
    My only change would be drop the R.Kelly collabs to the total bottom and include the Jay Z/Roots release which seems to be mistakenly omitted.
    Random Quote: ‘Jay’s Z’s little buddy Kanye’ was quite hilarious…
    Eerily ‘Blueprint’s ‘Girls Girls Girls’ popped up randomly on my Itunes right when I hit it at #4…

  44. Man, I really thought putting Watch the Throne that high was going to be the biggest complaint, but it got weirder and weirder as it went along.

  45. Bro, you totally lost your lunch on this one.

  46. LO L @ Vol. 3 being the best Jay-Z album. You guys just need to stick to indie/rock albums. This is easily one of Jay’s more inconsistent LP’s. Anybody rating this higher than RD loses all credibility.

  47. Of all the stereogum lists I’ve read this is the worst. It doesn’t matter how bad any of the other albums are you must must must put Collision Course at the bottom. And as far as Vol. 3, It would be near 8th or 9th on my list.

    1. Blueprint
    2. Reasonable Doubt
    3. Black Album
    4. Vol. 2
    5. Vol. 1

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